Neil Lennon: The possibility of Celtic winning a treble treble is ‘bonkers’

It is an exhausting business being buffeted by Scottish football’s swirl. If it’s not sniping between managers, criticism of synthetic surfaces and slamming of refereeing decisions, there’s always sectarianism to drain the enthusiasm. Kilmarnock’s Steve Clarke has found that to his cost this week. Neil Lennon would have sympathy considering what he found himself embroiled in during four years as Celtic manager, never mind a two-and-a-half year stint at Hibernian that ended recently.
Neil Lennon discusses the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final tie between Hibernian and Celtic.Neil Lennon discusses the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final tie between Hibernian and Celtic.
Neil Lennon discusses the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final tie between Hibernian and Celtic.

The current incumbent in the Parkhead post, Brendan Rodgers, said that sectarianism could deter managers from coming to Scotland. Now into his third season in charge of Celtic, it is to be wondered how long the footballing environment in the country will be enough for him. Especially when he seems hemmed in by the inability to improve upon domestic success which has been faultless, and the inability to progress in continental competition beyond being also-rans in the last 32 of the Europa League, Celtic exiting on Thursday night against Valencia.

Lennon is currently a “resting” coach following his departure from Hibs earlier this month and neither party is willing to go into details about the divorce. He believes it is impossible to speculate on how long Rodgers will be sustained by the Scottish game, which will see his team host Motherwell today as they turn their attention towards completing a third straight clean sweep of the country’s honours. With the League Cup stashed and an eight-point lead in the Premiership, the greatest threat to the “treble treble” could come when Lennon’s two former clubs lock horns in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals at Easter Road on Saturday.

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In terms of a Celtic manager’s shelf life, Lennon can only consider that he reached his when he completed a fourth season in charge in 2013-14. “[It was] just energy as well,” he said. “I knew right away. A lot of energy had gone by then and I needed the break. I needed it for myself because I had put a lot of energy into it. You would need to ask Brendan how he’s feeling. We are sitting here talking about, and I can’t believe it, the possibility of a treble treble, which is just bonkers. It’s just amazing consistency and they always seem to find a way to beat the opposition, whether they are playing well going into the game or not, so the mentality he’s brought to the place and the style of play is fantastic. Now whether it’s enough for him, is a question that only Brendan will answer. I wouldn’t even try and pre-empt what Brendan might be thinking. It will be down to Brendan and the way he is feeling. If he does do a treble treble does he think ‘well what more can I achieve?’

“Part of it [for me was the need for constant team rebuilding], yeah, but in my time there was no Rangers either and we had won the league by March and I think we ended up winning it by late 20s to 30 points. That was the end of four years and you are just thinking, ‘I need a break’. Personally, I need a break for myself more than anything else. That was a major factor in wanting to take a step out.”

It is a decision Lennon says he has never seriously regretted. “No, not really,” he said. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it’s how you are feeling at that particular moment in time. I left the club on good terms, which was important to me. You always have a tingling of regret, thinking about what you could have achieved, but not really.”

He may be left to regret his parting of the ways with Hibs this week, because there was little that seemed to stir the 47-year-old’s juices more than facing up to the club where his 13 years of service has given him iconic status.

Lennon faced Celtic six times at the helm of the Leith club. His record of two wins, two draws and two defeats is the best of any manager against Rodgers. Celtic will require to win on Saturday at a ground where Lennon successfully plotted their downfall in their past two visits.

“The first time we played them at Easter Road, we were forced to go with one striker and we were 2-0 down with ten minutes to go and ended up drawing 2-2. We were lucky,” he said. “We were fortunate to get the point that day because when you play one up against them you give the onus to Celtic because they will play out from the back and dominate the ball and at times their movement through midfield into the wide men is very good. We changed then and either went 3-5-2 or with a diamond, just to stop them from getting into a rhythm and turning it into 50-50 football where you could get knockdowns and get into the final third a bit quicker. That seemed to work, but you need plenty of energy and legs.

“I tried it at Celtic Park this year in the first game and they demoralised us first half and we had to change the system. We played quite well second half but I probably didn’t have the players I had last year to do the same sort of roles we asked of them this year – your [John] McGinns and [Dylan] McGeouchs. We tried the same system we used at Easter Road at Celtic Park and it quite clearly wasn’t going to work that day, so there are times you can go for them but at Easter Road – the pitch is smaller, it’s not as wide – you can try and take the game to Celtic and it gets the crowd going. If you sit off them, they will pass you to death and that just wasn’t the way I wanted to play against them.

“If you ask the Hibs supporters, the most important in their lives as Hibs supporters was winning the Scottish Cup [in 2016]. That means everything to them. Going forward, they might not be able to replicate that moment again but the cup now is big proposition for Hibs.

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“I think Paul Heckingbottom has plenty of good players to work with, I think [Marc] McNulty is a good acquisition as well. He is a clever player and once he gets up to full speed I think he will score goals for them. So they have got goals in the team. They will be a threat to Celtic and if they can play to their full potential and catch Celtic on an off day you could be in for an upset. Would it really surprise you if Hibs beat Celtic at Easter Road? On recent form you have to say no.”

Neil Lennon was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.